Clause 59 and ‘TwitterJokeTrial’ – a warning from history

Spring Equinox, 2021

 

Some of those defending clause 59 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing, Courts and Anything Else the Government Can Get Away With Bill point out that one purpose of the provision is to set out in statute the old common law offence of public nuisance.

The view is that the enactment is merely an exercise in modernisation and simplification – that there is nothing for us to worry our heads about.

And as this blog has already explained, part of the origin of the proposal is a Law Commission report from 2015.

But.

There is a law more powerful than any statute or common law right, more powerful even than any great charter.

And that is the law of unintended consequences.

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Here is a story.

There was once an obscure provision in the Post Office (Amendment Act) 1935 that, in turn, amended the Post Office Act 1908:

And for seventy years the offence was hardly noticed, though it was reenacted from time to time as telecommunications legislation was, ahem, modernised and simplified.

Then in 2003 it was reenacted yet again, but in terms that (without any proper consideration) ended up covering the entire internet:

But it was still not really noticed.

Until one day some bright spark at the crown prosecution service realised the provision’s broad terms were a prosecutorial gift in the age of social media.

This resulted in the once-famous TwitterJokeTrial case and its various appeals, which ended with a hearing before the lord chief justice.

In allowing the appeal against conviction, the lord chief justice said:

In other words: the intention of the 2003 reenactment had not been to widen the scope of the offence in respect of fundamental freedoms.

(Declaration of interest: I was the appeal solicitor before the high court in that case.)

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Coming back to clause 59, it may well be that the intended effect of clause 59 is to merely restate the existing law.

Some are convinced by this view: 

But.

What we will have, once enacted, will be an offence – that is, an arrestable and chargeable offence – which, on the face of it is in extraordinary broad terms, using such everyday language as ‘annoyance’.

It may be that the higher courts will, as any appeals come in, apply the technical meaning in property law of ‘annoyance’.

The law in practice is not that (only) of the judgments of the high court and above: it is what police officers and crown prosecution service case workers believe the law to be and see the law as it is set out.

It is also can be what zealous complainants to the police say it to be.

And none of these people will – understandable and perhaps rightly – be well versed in the case law of ‘annoyance’ in respect of the old law of public nuisance.

They will just see an arresting and charging power – and a power to set conditions.

So it should not be left to the courts ‘to apply the old caselaw’.

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Criminal offences – and their limits – need to be clear and precise to everyone involved: citizen, complainant, arresting officer, crown prosecution service case worker, busy junior legal aid solicitor giving advice on plea – as well as to erudite barristers and even more erudite judges.

And so: even taking the point about this being a mere modernisation and simplification at its highest, clause 59 currently contains worryingly wide drafting.

Most people reading clause 59 by itself will believe there is a criminal offence – with a sentence of up to ten years – for causing mere annoyance.

Even if that it not the government’s intention, that is how the current provision can be read.

And because of this, people may suffer the life-changing events of being arrested and being charged – and may even plead guilty.

Unless, of course, that is the government’s real intention.

***

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Whoopsie: the government did not get the commission report on judicial review that it was hoping for

 19th March 2021

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‘Toulouse’s suggestion was not what Audrey wanted to hear.’

– Moulin Rouge

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Sometimes – just sometimes – in the world of law and policy there are moments when welcome things do happen.

Back in August 2020 this blog covered the government’s announcement of an ‘independent panel to look at judicial review’.

It did not seem a promising move: just an attempt by the government to find cover for an assault on judicial review by means of a hand-picked commission.

But.

It is sometimes strange how things turn out.

The commission has now reported – and just a skim of the report shows that the government did not get the report it was hoping for.

In large part, the report appears to be an affirmation of the current position of judicial review – with minor changes that it is hard to feel strongly about.

(A close read of the report may dislodge this happy impression – but that is this blog’s preliminary view.)

The concluding observations of the report could have even be a post on this very blog:

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In receipt of the report, the Ministry of Justice decided that it would try harder to find people to tell them what they wanted to hear.

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‘We want to keep this conversation going.’

We can bet they do.

Like a frustrated news show producer who cannot find any talking-head expert to say the desired things, the Ministry of Justice is now resorting to a Vox Pox.

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At bottom, the problem here is a mismatch, a dislocation – such as those recently discussed on this blog.

The discrepancy is between the heady rhetoric of ‘activist judges’ – a rhetoric that has a life of its own – and the mundane reality of what actually happens in courts.

The commission, to their credit, looked hard and reported on what they saw.

Yet those Ministry of Justice, to their discredit, want to keep on until they are told what they want to hear.

Perhaps the Ministry of Justice will get what they want – and then move to limit judicial review.

One can never be optimistic about law and policy for very long, and the illiberals and authoritarians are relentless.

But this report is a welcome break from the push towards populist authoritarianism in our political and legal affairs.

**

For a more detailed account of the just-published report, see Paul Daly’s blogpost here.

***

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The European Commission launches legal proceedings against the United Kingdom – a guided tour

 16th March 2021

The European Commission announced yesterday that it had ‘launched legal proceedings’ against the United Kingdom.

What has happened is that a formal legal notice has been sent by the European Commission to the United Kingdom.

To say this is ‘launch[ing] legal proceedings’ is a little dramatic: no claim or action has been filed – yet – at any court or tribunal.

But it is a legally significant move,  and it is the first step of processes that, as we will see below, can end up before both a court and a tribunal.

This blogpost sets out the relevant information in the public domain about this legal move – a guided tour of the relevant law and procedure.

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Let us start with the ‘legal letter’ setting out the legal obligations that the European Commission aver the United Kingdom has breached and the particular evidence for those breaches.

This is an ‘infraction’ notice.

As the European Commission is making some very serious allegations – for example, that the United Kingdom is in breach of the Northern Ireland protocol – then it is important to see exactly what these averred breaches are.

This information would be set out precisely in the infraction letter – informing the ministers and officials of the United Kingdom government of the case that they had to meet in their response.

But.

We are not allowed to see this letter.

Even though the European Commission is making serious public allegations about the United Kingdom being in breach of the politically sensitive Northern Ireland Protocol, it will not tell us the particulars of the alleged breaches.

This is because, I am told, the European Commission does not publish such formal infraction notices.

There is, of course, no good reason for this lack of transparency – especially given what is at stake.

The European Commission should not be able to have the ‘cake’ of making serious infraction allegations without the ‘eating it’ of publishing them.

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And so to work out what the alleged breaches are, we have to look at other, less formal (and thereby less exact) sources.

Here the European Commission have published two things.

First, there is this press release.

Second there is this ‘political letter’ – as distinct from the non-disclosed ‘legal letter’.

What now follows in this blogpost is based primarily on a close reading of these two public documents.

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We start with the heady international law of the Vienna Convention on the law of treaties.

Article 26 of the Vienna Convention regards the delightful Latin phrase Pacta sunt servanda.

In other words: if you have signed it, you do it.

Agreements must be kept.

You will also see in Article 26 express mention of ‘good faith’.

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We now go to the withdrawal agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

There at Article 5 you will see that the United Kingdom and the European Union expressly set out their obligation of good faith to each other in respect of this particular agreement:

So whatever ‘good faith’ may or not mean in a given fact situation, there is no doubt that under both Article 26 of the Vienna Convention generally and under Article 5 of the withdrawal agreement in particular that the United Kingdom and the European Union have a duty of good faith to each other in respect of their obligations under the withdrawal agreement.

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The European Commission not only allege that the United Kingdom is in breach of its obligation of good faith but also that the United Kingdom is in breach of specific obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol (which is part of the withdrawal agreement).

The press release says there are ‘breaches of substantive provisions of EU law concerning the movement of goods and pet travel made applicable by virtue of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland’.

The ‘political letter’ says:

So it would appear that the relevant provisions of the withdrawal agreement are Articles 5(3) and (4) of the Northern Ireland and Annex 2 to that protocol.

Here we go first to Annex 2.

This annex lists many provisions of European Union law that continue to have effect in Northern Ireland notwithstanding the departure of the United Kingdom.

Article 5(4) of the protocol incorporates the annex as follows:

‘The provisions of Union law listed in Annex 2 to this Protocol shall also apply, under the conditions set out in that Annex, to and in the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland.’

As such a breach of Article 5(4) is a breach of the European Union laws set out in that annex.

Article 5(3) of the protocol is a more complicated provision and it is less clear (at least to me) what the European Commission is saying would be the breach:

My best guess is that the European Commission is here averring that the United Kingdom is in breach of the European Union customs code (which is contained in Regulation 952/2013.)

As regards the specific European Union laws set out in Annex 2 that the European Commission also says that the United Kingdom is in breach of, we do not know for certain because of the refusal of the commission to publish the formal infraction notice.

On the basis of information in the press release and the ‘political letter’ it would appear that the problems are set out in these three paragraphs:

Certain keyword searches of Annex 2 indicate which actual laws the European Commission is saying being breached, but in the absence of sight of the formal infraction notice, one could not know for certain.

The reason the detail of what laws are at stake matters is because each instrument of European Union law may have its own provisions in respect of applicability, enforceability and proportionality that could be relevant in the current circumstances.

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So: what next.

Two things – the European Commission is adopting a twin-track, home-and-away approach.

One process will deal with the substantive provisions of European Union law – and the other process will deal with the matter of good faith.

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In respect of the alleged substantive breaches of European Union law, the European Commission has commenced infraction proceedings – as it would do in respect of any member of the European Union.

As the ‘political letter’ pointedly reminds the United Kingdom:

The United Kingdom is still subject to the supervisory and enforcement powers of the European Union in respect of breaches of European Union law in Northern Ireland.

You thought Brexit meant Brexit?

No: the government of Boris Johnson agreed a withdrawal agreement that kept in place the supervisory and enforcement powers of the European Union – including infraction proceedings of the European Commission and determinations by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

And so in 2021 – five years after the Brexit referendum – the European Commission is launching infraction proceedings against the United Kingdom under Article 258 of the Treaty of Rome:

This means there could well be a hearing before the Court of Justice of the European Union.

One does not know whether this would be more wanted or not wanted by our current hyper-partisan post-Brexit government.

One even half-suspects that they wanted this all along.

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The other track – with the European Commission playing ‘away’ – is in respect of the general ‘good faith’ obligation – as opposed to the substantive European Union law obligations under Annex 2.

Here we are at an early stage.

In particular, we are are at the fluffy ‘cooperation’ stage of Article 167:

If this fails, then the next stage would be a notice under Article 169(1):

Article 169(1) provides that such a formal notice shall ‘commence consultations’.

And if these Article 169 consultations do not succeed, then we go to Article 170:

The arbitration panel – and not the European Commission nor the European Court of Justice – would then determine whether the United Kingdom is in breach of its general obligation of good faith.

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We could therefore end up with two sets of highly controversial proceedings.

The European Commission has intimated the processes for both to take place in due course.

From a legalistic perspective, the European Commission may have a point – depending on what the alleged breaches actually are.

A legal process is there for dealing with legal breaches – that is what a legal process is for.

But.

When something is legally possible, it does not also make it politically sensible.

A wise person chooses their battles.

And if the European Commission presses their cases clumsily, then the legitimacy and durability of the withdrawal framework may be put at risk.

Brace, brace.

***

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The proposed new clause 59 offence of ‘intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance’

15th March 2021

There is currently a bill before parliament that will, among other things, create a new statutory offence of ‘public nuisance’.

This new offence – as currently set out in the bill – is itself causing annoyance and distress.

Why is it being proposed?

And what should parliament do about it?

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Like a lamp in Aladdin – it is a new offence for an old one.

If the new offence is enacted then the current ‘common law’ (that is, non-statutory) offence of public nuisance will be abolished.

The current offence is ill-defined and rarely used – and it has been the subject of 2015 reform proposals from the Law Commission – see here.

(Of course, the fact that the Law Commission proposed reform in 2015 is not the reason why the home office have chosen to propose changes in 2021.)

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On the face of it, reform and simplification are good things.

Who could possibly oppose something as laudable as reform and simplification?

And the Law Commission does have a point – the current law is somewhat vague and archaic.

The current law is usually stated as:

‘A person is guilty of a public nuisance (also known as common nuisance), who (a) does an act not warranted by law, or (b) omits to discharge a legal duty, if the effect of the act or omission is to endanger the life, health, property or comfort of the public, or to obstruct the public in the exercise or enjoyment of rights common to all Her Majesty’s subjects.’

The bill before parliament proposes that old offence to be replaced by this:

As you will see there are elements of the current offence copied over to the new offence – and that although this is an exercise in ‘simplification’ it also happens to be rather longer.

Words like ‘annoyance’ are added.

But the new offence has not plucked the word ‘annoyance’ out of the air: annoyance can be a component of the current offence, and it has featured in case law.

The word ‘annoy’ (and its variants) is mentioned thirty-seven times in the Law Commission report.

The Law Commission summarises their view as (at paragraph 3.12):

‘One question is the nature of the right or interest which public nuisance seeks to protect.  In our view, its proper use is to protect the rights of members of the public to enjoy public spaces and use public rights (such as rights of way) without danger, interference or annoyance.’

Whatever ills can be blamed on the home secretary and the home office, the content of this proposed provision is not entirely of their creation.

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But.

Each and every piece of legislation needs to be scrutinised on its own terms – and neither parliamentarians nor the public should just nod-along because the magic words ‘reform’ and ‘simplification’ are invoked.

Never trust the home office.

And if one looks through clause 59 carefully and trace through how it works, it is potentially a chilling and illiberal provision.

For example (with emphasis added):

A person commits an offence if— (a) the person— (i) does an act […]  [which](b) the person’s act or omission […] (ii) obstructs the public or a section of the public in the exercise or enjoyment of a right that may be exercised or enjoyed by the public at large, and (c) the person  […]  is reckless as to whether it will have such a consequence. […]  (2) For the purposes of subsection (1) an act or omission causes serious harm to a person if, as a result, the person […] (c) suffers serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity, or (d) is put at risk of suffering anything mentioned […].

The offence is thereby made out not if a person is caused ‘serious annoyance’ but only if there is a ‘risk’ of them suffering it.

And there does not need need to be any directed intention – mere recklessness will suffice.

The maximum sentence for simply putting someone ‘at risk of suffering’ serious annoyance is imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.

Of course, maximum sentences are maximum sentences, and in practice the penalties will be lower.

Yet, the creation of such an offence in these terms will have a knock-on effects on the powers of police to arrest and to set conditions.

And it is in the day-to-day exercises of such powers by the police that the real chill of any offence is most keenly felt – and not the ultimate sentencing power of a court.

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This provision and other provisions in the bill before parliament have the potential to greatly restrict the rights of individuals to protest – or even go about their everyday activities.

As such, such provisions should receive the anxious scrutiny of parliamentarians. 

Despite the Law Commission origins of the proposed reform – there may be plenty here that the home office have added – and for various illiberal reasons.

Members of parliament are not there to nod-along – and this particular proposal should not just be nodded-through.

***

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The Real Citizens of Nowhere – statelessness and the law and the case of Shamima Begum – looking closely at the Begum case part 2

not 2nd March 2021

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‘…you’re a citizen of nowhere.’

Theresa May, then prime minister of the United Kingdom, Birmingham, 2016

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What is a stateless person – a person who is (literally) a citizen of nowhere?

The best starting point for answering this question – a question that is relevant in the topical case of Shamima Begum as well as important generally – is the declaration of human rights of the United Nations.

Article 15 of the declaration provides:

‘(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.

‘(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his [or her] nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.’

A stateless person would thereby a person without nationality, either because they have never had one or because they have been deprived of any nationality that they did have.

That person would be an alien in every country on the planet, without a government obliged to offer protection or help, and without anywhere where they can reside as of right.

Such a predicament would be fundamentally inhumane.

And so that is why the rights to a nationality and against being deprived of any nationality arbitrarily are in the United Nations declaration.

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You will notice that article 15(2) of the declaration is not an absolute prohibition on a person being deprived of nationality, but a bar on such deprivation being done ‘arbitrarily’.

This would be most relevant when a person has more than one nationality, when one or more of those nationalities is being removed.

But the basic right under article 15(1) is not subject to exceptions: the ‘right to a nationality’ is a right for ‘everyone’. 

And that, for what it is worth, is the fundamental position under international law.

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The next step is a 1954 convention of the United Nations – the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons – which took effect in 1960.

The key provision of the 1954 convention is article 1(1), which provides a legally significant definition of a ‘stateless person’ (and thereby ‘statelessness’):

‘For the purpose of this Convention, the term “stateless person” means a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.’

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This definition in article 1(1) of the 1954 convention repays careful consideration.

Indeed, as you will see later, this particular definition matters a lot.

Note what the definition does not say.

For example (omitting certain words and replacing ‘by’ with ‘of’) it does not say:

‘For the purpose of this Convention, the term “stateless person” means a person who is not […] a national [of] any State […].’

So what difference do the omitted words make?

The difference is the crucial phrase (perhaps known better in other contexts): ‘the operation of law.’

This phrase means that, regardless of the facts of a person’s predicament, their nationality is a matter of law.

Not a matter of fact, or of opinion – but a matter of law.

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So, for example, imagine person [Y].

If the law of country [X] provides that person [Y] is a national of that country, then the legal position is that person [x] has nationality and is not stateless.

It does not matter if person [Y] has never been to country [X].

It does not matter if person [Y] has no personal connection to country [X] and, for example, does not speak the language of country [X] and may even be persecuted or tortured if they were to go to country [X].

It also follows that the mere opinion of anybody involved does not matter.

Even if the government of country [X] opines that person [Y] is not a national, that opinion does not matter if, as a matter of law, person [Y] is a national of country [Y].

All that ultimately matters on the issue is what the law of country [X] provides on the issue, and nothing else.

And once it can be ascertained that person [Y] is, as a matter of law, a national of country [X] then that person is not stateless.

Person [Y]’s personal relationship with country [X] and the state opinion of the government of country [Y] are all irrelevant.

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This absolute priority for the legal position – above the practical facts of the situation – is, as you will see, a feature of this area of law.

Some lawyers will use the Latin phrases de jure and de facto as respective labels for the position as a matter of law and the situation as a matter of fact.

Adopting such terms, the law is that one’s nationality in respect of statelessness is de jure rather than de facto.

Even if the relevant country is far away and about which you know nothing.

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So, in practice: a government of a country (for example, Bangladesh) may well say a person is not a national (or not wanted as a national) – yet what makes that person stateless is not that mere statement by the government, but whether that person is stateless by operation of law of that country.

When the government of a country (for example, Bangladesh) says one thing about whether a person is a national, but the law of that country says another, then the law trumps the government.

The rejection by a government (for example, Bangladesh) may make a person (for example, Begum) stateless de facto but not de jure.

You will see the consequences of this (legalistic) approach in some of the relevant cases (for example, the case of Begum).

And this (legalistic) approach is hard-wired into the very wording of article 1(1) of the 1954 convention.

Let us look at it again (with emphasis added): 

‘For the purpose of this Convention, the term “stateless person” means a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.’

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Our next step is another United Nations convention – the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness – of 1961 and which took effect in 1975.

The 1961 convention provides at article 8(1):

‘A Contracting State shall not deprive a person of its nationality if such deprivation would render him [or her] stateless.’

This right looks robust and unequivocal, with no deft legalistic exceptions or qualifications.

This right is subject to exceptions under the article 8(2) of the 1961 convention (which relate to those who obtain nationality by naturalisation) and under the article 8(3) of the 1961 convention (certain disloyal activities).

You did not think that countries would make it that easy for a person to rely on the right under article 8(1) of the 1961 convention, did you?

Of course not.

Article 8(2) and article 8(3) envisage some situations where a person themselves fulfils a condition that allows a country to deprive a person of their nationality.

The notion is that they will only have themselves to blame.

(As for the position under the law of the United Kingdom at the time the 1961 convention took effect, see section 20 of the British Nationality Act 1948 – the predecessor of the current 1981 Act)

However, in the case of Begum, article 8(2) and article 8(3) are not (supposedly) directly relevant, as the position of the government of the United Kingdom in respect of the Begum case is, of course, that depriving her of her United Kingdom citizenship does not render her stateless.

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The position of the government is that Begum is de jure a citizen of Bangladesh.

This is, in part, because the government takes statelessness to mean as it is defined in the 1954 convention – that is as statelessness de jure not de facto.

And so, in his letter of 19th February 2019, the home secretary Sajid Javid said (emphases added):

‘As the Secretary of State, I hereby give notice in accordance with section 40(5) of the British Nationality Act 1981 that I intend to have an order made to deprive you, Shamima Begum of your British citizenship under section 40(2) of the Act. This is because it would be conducive to the public good to do so.

‘The reason for the decision is that you are a British/Bangladeshi dual national who it is assessed has previously travelled to Syria and aligned with ISIL. It is assessed that your return to the UK would present a risk to the national security of the United Kingdom. In accord with section 40(4) of the British Nationality Act 1981, I am satisfied that such an order will not make you stateless.

The emphasised text is crucial.

Without that text, the home secretary may have be barred by section 40(4) of the British Nationality Act 1981:

‘The Secretary of State may not make an order under subsection (2) if he is satisfied that the order would make a person stateless.’

And so, if Begum – by operation of law – is indeed a citizen of Bangladesh then she can – in principle – be deprived of her United Kingdom citizenship without that deprivation being barred by section 40(4) of the 1981 Act (and thereby contrary to international law).

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But it is no longer just the view of the home secretary of the United Kingdom.

The question of whether the deprivation would be such as to render Begum stateless has also been considered by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, in paragraphs 27 to 139 of its decision.

The commission heard expert evidence on both sides and decided that the law of Bangladesh would be that Begum would be a national of Bangladesh, regardless of the lack of any personal connection with that country.

This is paragraph 121 of the commission decision:

The commission has held that Begum was a citizen of Bangladesh by operation of the law of Bangladesh – regardless of what the government of Bangladesh has said and does say.

Begum has not, according to the commission decision, been rendered stateless.

The commission may be wrong: perhaps the expert evidence was wrong, or the wrong weight has been placed on the evidence, or the commission has applied the wrong legal tests, or the commission has applied legal tests incorrectly.

But, as it stands, the view of the home secretary that the deprivation decision has not made Begum stateless has also been endorsed by an independent body.

This issue of whether Begum would or would not be rendered stateless has, however, been decided only as one preliminary issue – there are several other issues – and there still has not been a final decision by the commission on Begum’s overall appeal of the deprivation.

The recent appeals up to and including the supreme court have been in respect of Begum’s ability to participate in this appeal and on a separate policy matter (which we will look at in another post).

The substantive appeal of the deprivation order is still incomplete (and at the moment it appears that it may be indefinitely stayed  – that is, in effect, adjourned).

The appeal before the commission is in limbo, as is – of course – Shamima Begum.

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This post is part of a series of posts on the Begum case.

There is something wrong – very wrong – about the legal situation of Shamima Begum.

That is, at least on the basis of information in the public domain – which is, of course, the only information on which the public can have confidence in the relevant law and policy.

The legal case is, however, complex – at least on the face of it, with sets of legal proceedings and appeals that have resulted so far in a number of lengthy judgments by variously constituted courts.

So to get to the wrongness of this situation, this blog will be doing a sequence of posts, each on a different element of the case.

Previous posts have included:

  • initial thoughts on the illiberal supreme court decision (here)
  • the parallel of the supreme court decision with the 1941 case of Liversidge v Anderson (here)
  • the legal power of the home secretary to deprive a person of United Kingdom citizenship (here)

Further posts will show how the home office and the courts dealt (and did not deal) with important issues in this case.

The purpose of this Begum series of posts is to promote the public understanding of law.

The posts in this Begum series on this blog will be every few days, alongside commentary on other law and policy matters.

*****

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Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

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Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

The issue with vaccine certification – or ‘vaccine passports’ – is not that they are discriminatory – as all certification is discriminatory, if you think about it

1st March 2021

Over at the Financial Times I have a piece today on ‘vaccine passports’ – that is, a system of certification that a person has or has not had the coronavirus vaccine.

That article demonstrates my weakness as a commentator in the traditional media sense, as on this subject I do not happen to have strong views either way.

I do not have an ‘angle’ that will (conveniently) last from between 800 to 1100 words – no ultimate position that I am arguing for and articulating on your behalf for your claps and cheers.

Instead, on this policy (as on many others) I can only see difficulties – and difficult choices.

And these difficulties are, in turn, because of the very nature of certification.

All certification is discriminatory – that is its very point.

Certification enables (or should enable) a state of affairs to be asserted in a manner that then allows a decision-maker to make one decision instead of another.

That is: to discriminate.

The problem is not with discrimination in and of itself.

The problem is when that discrimination is unfair – either directly or indirectly.

Accordingly, it is not a complete answer to the proposal of any form of certification to dismiss it as discriminatory.

For all you are then saying is that a system of certification is acting, well, as a system of certification should.

The more important questions are whether that a policy of certificates would be reliable – and, if reliable, whether the benefits will outweigh the costs and whether it will not create unwanted inequalities, either directly or indirectly.

These are problematic things to consider – and for which there may not be an easy solutions – and in respect of which difficult choices will need to be made.

And to point such things out is a purpose of law and policy commentary.

Not all commentary is cheerleading for one position or the other.

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The legal power of the Home Secretary to deprive a person of United Kingdom citizenship – looking closely at the Begum case part 1

28th February 2021

There is something wrong – very wrong – about the legal situation of Shamima Begum.

That is, at least on the basis of information in the public domain – which is, of course, the only information on which the public can have confidence in the relevant law and policy.

The legal case is, however, complex – at least on the face of it, with sets of legal proceedings and appeals that have resulted so far in a number of lengthy judgments by variously constituted courts.

So to get to the wrongness of this situation, this blog will be doing a sequence of posts, each on a different element of the case.

Is the fault with the substantive law and general government policy?  Or with the particular decisions made by home secretaries?  Or with the lower courts and tribunals?  Or with the higher appeal courts?

Of course, one easy answer is say ‘all of them’ – but even then: what is the allocation and distribution of wrongness in the system?

Previous posts on this blog on the case have put forward some initial impressions on the supreme court judgment of last week and, yesterday, compared the case in general terms with the 1941 decision of Liversidge v Anderson.

Today’s post is on the general subject of the power of the home secretary to deprive a person of British citizenship, subject to the (supposed) prohibition on rendering a person ‘stateless’.

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The power of a home secretary to deprive a person of British citizenship is set out in section 40 of the British Nationality Act 1981.

Note, however, that this is not about powers that actually date back to 1981 – as this provision and the act generally have been heavily amended by successive governments.

This legal power, like many other powers that can be used illiberally, is a legal work-in-progress – constantly being tuned (if not finely) by home office lawyers by legislative amendment so as to make it ever-more difficult for a home secretary’s decisions to be checked and balanced.

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The key power in the Begum case is at section 40(2):

‘The Secretary of State may by order deprive a person of a citizenship status if the Secretary of State is satisfied that deprivation is conducive to the public good.’

This is it – this is the deprivation power.

On the face of section 40(2) alone, any person can be deprived of citizenship not by a decision of an independent court or tribunal but at the simple discretion of a cabinet minister.

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But.

There is then section 40(4), which provides:

‘The Secretary of State may not make an order under subsection (2) if he is satisfied that the order would make a person stateless.’

(The ‘he’ here also means ‘she’ under section 6 of the Interpretation Act 1978.)

On the face of it, section 40(4) would thereby prevent the deprivation power being used so as to render a person stateless.

Yet note, the deft use of the words ‘he is satisfied’.

Read the provision again without those three words to see the difference those words make: ‘The Secretary of State may not make an order under subsection (2) if  […] that the order would make a person stateless.’

The direct legal test is thereby not whether a person is made stateless, but (again) the ‘satisfaction’ of the home secretary.

As we come to look more closely at the Begum case in particular, you will see what rides on words and phrases like this.

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Turning now to the Begum case, we can now see the legal basis of the decision by the then home secretary Sajid Javid of 19th February 2019 (emphases added):

‘As the Secretary of State, I hereby give notice in accordance with section 40(5) of the British Nationality Act 1981 that I intend to have an order made to deprive you, Shamima Begum of your British citizenship under section 40(2) of the Act. This is because it would be conducive to the public good to do so.

‘The reason for the decision is that you are a British/Bangladeshi dual national who it is assessed has previously travelled to Syria and aligned with ISIL. It is assessed that your return to the UK would present a risk to the national security of the United Kingdom. In accord with section 40(4) of the British Nationality Act 1981, I am satisfied that such an order will not make you stateless.’

As you can see, the notice of 19th February 2019 ticks the boxes for both (1) the basic deprivation power and (2) avoiding the statelessness exception.

This determination being made by the home secretary – and given the evidence on which the home secretary purports to rely – the only immediate avenue of appeal of Begum was to the special immigration appeals commission.

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The next post in this series of posts on the Begum case will set out the relevant law on ‘statelessness’.

Further posts will then show how the home office and the courts dealt (and did not deal) with important issues in this case.

The purpose of this Begum series of posts is to promote the public understanding of law.

The posts in this Begum series on this blog will be every few days, alongside commentary on other law and policy matters.

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‘Not giving the Home Secretary’s assessment the respect that it deserves’ – some initial thoughts on the Shamima Begum decision of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom

26th February 2021

This morning the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom handed down its decision in the appeal case of Shamima Begum.

The judgment is detailed and lengthy, dealing with three distinct appeals, and is 137 paragraphs long.

With a decision of this scope and complexity one can only form indicative impressions on the day it is made public.

The decision will take time to digest and to comprehend.

But.

That said, and with the proviso that immediate impressions can often be dispelled, here are some views from the perspective of a liberal commentator on law and policy.

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The first impression comes from the decision being unanimous.

This is not a judgment where some justices with a more liberal perspective have their say and their more conservative counterparts say something else.

A basis for a judgment was found to which all supreme court justices who heard the case was content to put their names.

This is similar to what happened in the second Miller case – on the prorogation of parliament – and on the Heathrow expansion case.

Perhaps it is a mere coincidence – but the supreme court is at now at least in the habit of putting on a united front in cases that (can be said to) involve issues of high policy and the public interest – even if it is not a deliberate policy.

This is no doubt sensible – if the judicial element of the state is to check and balance another element of the state (or to not check or balance another element of the state) then it is better for it not to be seen as something on which senior judges disagree between themselves.

It also perhaps indicates that there is more going on behind the scenes in seeking to obtain unanimous judgments, rather than a laissez-faire attitude of just publishing what each judge thinks.

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The second impression is that, as well as being unanimous, the judgment is executive minded.

For example, here is how the court of appeal described the background of Begum:

But in contrast, in the supreme court judgment these same personal details – such as where Begum was born – are expressly presented from the perspective of the home secretary’s desk:

What we know about Begum in the supreme court judgment is expressly framed as being the content of a submission before the home secretary.

We are not directly told Begum was born in the United Kingdom other than that this is an incidental detail in an assessment on national security.

For the details of the individual to be put in such terms in a judgment in respect of their rights is not wrong, but it is quite the tell.

The supreme court judgment also starts in a robust, no-nonsense way about the home secretary’s decisive action:

Nothing rides on it, of course, but note how we are told that the home secretary is both a privy councillor and a member of parliament (gosh, fancy that) and nothing at all about Begum.

That the court is seeing things from the home secretary’s perspective is also perhaps indicated by an unfortunate choice of words at paragraph 134:

The court of appeal has been told off by the unanimous supreme court for not giving ‘the Home Secretary’s assessment the respect which it should have received’.

It is not only an unfortunate choice of words, it is also somewhat chilling in a court which is in effect the final guarantor of our basic rights and freedoms either under the common law, human rights law, or otherwise.

The job of the courts is not to ‘give respect’ to assessments of the home secretary – but to approach such determinations with anxious scrutiny.

Perhaps the use of words here is a slip – but one fears instead it is again a tell.

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The third immediate impression is that it is a defeatist judgment.

The court of appeal found a compromise which balanced the rights of Begum with those of the executive.

It was an impressive and elegant judgment, and I did a video for the Financial Times:

The supreme court was to have none of this.

For the supreme court justices it is not the job of a court to indulge in such elaborate balancing exercises between the executive and the individual.

Instead, in such a dilemma, there is no judicial compromise:

Not every legal problem, it seems, has a neat legal solution – and the supreme court is averring that courts should not affect otherwise.

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The overall first impression is that the supreme court has made a firm turn away from liberalism – liberalism being the general notion that the rights of the individual are to be balanced against those of the state.

(As opposed to the notion that the rights of either side will always trump the other.)

If this first impression is affirmed on careful examination of the judgment then the considered reaction will have to be one of disappointment.

For if the supreme court is taking an illiberal turn, then they will be failing – to invoke a phrase – to accord individuals the respect they deserve.

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An introduction to Article 16 of the Northern Irish Protocol

16th February 2021

Article 16 of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland seems to be fated to become one of those legal provisions known by their number alone, like Article 50 or Section 28.

The provision has already been the feature of a political controversy, when the European Commission made the horrible mistake of invoking Article 16 in respect of proposed regulations about the coronavirus regulations – a proposal that was promptly, and correctly, withdrawn.

The prime minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson has also been reported as saying that he would be minded to trigger Article 16 in certain circumstances.

In these circumstances, a working knowledge of what Article 16 says, and does not say, may be useful for those who follow public affairs.

This post provides a basic introduction to the provision, and it complements a video that I recently narrated for the Financial Times.

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As a preliminary point, just as one does not simply walk into Mordor, one should never go straight to a clause or other provision within a wider legal instrument without an understanding of the purpose of that wider legal instrument.

By analogy: one can perhaps make sense of a line of computer code, but one also needs to understand how that line of code fits in the wider program to elicit its full meaning.

Similarly, an undue focus on the wording and contents of a single provision in any legal instrument can be misleading.

Every article, clause, section – or whatever word used for a discrete portion of legal text – has a context.

And so with Article 16 we have to understand something about the purpose of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

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The protocol, in turn, does not exist in isolation.

The protocol is attached to the Brexit withdrawal agreement – one of the two vast and complex international agreements between the European Union and the United Kingdom that provide the legal framework for Brexit.

The recitals to the withdrawal agreement – which (literally) recite the background and shared understandings of the parties to that agreement – describe the purpose of the the protocol:

Not just specific, but ‘very specific’.

You will also note the word ‘durable’ – and this indicates that it was the shared understanding of the European Union and the United Kingdom that the protocol would not be a temporary arrangements.

Article 125 of the withdrawal agreement then provides for how and when the protocol takes effect:

You will see Article 16 is not included in the provisions that had immediate effect on the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union – and so Article 16 has only had legal force since 1 January 2021.

The other main mention of the protocol in the main withdrawal agreement is that there shall be a specialised committee dealing with the protocol as part of the ‘Joint Committee’ that oversees the agreement:

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Now we can turn to the protocol itself.

Confusingly – and welcome to European Union legal instruments! – the protocol itself has its own recitals and articles.

And the protocol has a lot of recitals – twenty-three recitals (as opposed to nineteen operative articles).

Each one of these recitals sets out expressly a shared understanding of the European Union and the United Kingdom.

In particular, the government of the United Kingdom has put its name to each one of the recitals as a statement of its own understanding.

The recitals are not agreements in themselves, and they are not legally enforceable by themselves, but they do set out the common understandings of the European Union and the United Kingdom that are relevant to the articles that follow.

And these recitals, in particular, are significant:

And:

Note the word ‘guarantee’.

And:

And:

A common response from those unhappy with the protocol is to insist something about what the Good Friday Agreement does and does not provide in respect of a ‘hard’ border.

These recitals, however, do explicitly set in firm and emphatic language the shared understandings of the European Union (including Ireland) and the United Kingdom in respect of there not being a hard border.

And this is in the very ‘oven-ready’ withdrawal agreement for which Johnson and the Conservative Party won a mandate at the December 2019 general election and that was then endorsed by the Westminster parliament.

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Now the articles – the substantive operative provisions that are entitled to have legal effect as between the parties.

You will see that the articles provide for substantive obligations in respect of the free movement of persons and goods (and Article 5 in turn incorporates an annex listing hundreds of European Union regulations and directives).

There are also provisions for State aid and VAT.

The protocol is, in effect, the legal mechanics for Northern Ireland remaining, in effect, part of the European Union single market and customs arrangements whilst still being part of the United Kingdom single market.

It is a complex and – regardless of one’s political views – remarkable piece of legal drafting, especially given the rush of the exit negotiations.

But as with any legal instrument – especially ones devised at speed and in respect of sensitive issues – there will be problems and disputes and unintended effects.

And this brings us to Article 16.

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Article 16 comprises just three paragraphs:

The article is entitled ‘Safeguards’ – and not, for example, ‘Sanctions’ or ‘Retaliatory measures’.

The first paragraph then provides the triggers for the safeguards.

There are two triggers.

First: ‘if the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist’.

Here note the requirements that the difficulties need to be ‘serious’ and ‘liable to persist’ – that it, not trivial or temporary.

Second: ‘if the application of this Protocol leads to…diversion of trade’.

Again, ‘diversion’ indicates something significant and lasting.

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If either of these triggers are met then either the European Union or the United Kingdom ‘may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures’.

Note the requirement that the measures be ‘appropriate’ – and also (deftly) the measures have to be ‘safeguard’ measures, and not any old measures.

Paragraph 1 of the article then also adds further requirements in respect of the scope and duration of the safeguard measures, and subjects the measures to a test of strict necessity.

And – and! – priority should be given to ‘such measures as will least disturb the functioning’ of the protocol.

Paragraph 2 of the article then provides for similar tests for any ‘balancing’ measures of the other party.

These are all onerous substantive tests – and each one must be met for a safeguard measure to be adopted.

And these are just the substantive tests – for Annex 7 to the protocol also provides for the procedure that also has to be followed.

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Annex 7 contains six ‘points’:

You will see point 1 provides a duty of notification at the stage the safeguard measure is being considered.

Point 2 then provides that the next stage is consultations.

Point 3 then imposes a general one month delay, unless the consultations have ended quickly or there are ‘exceptional circumstances’ and the measures are ‘strictly necessary’.

Point 5 then provides that, in addition to the requirement that the safeguard measures not endure longer than necessary, there is a three month review period.

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All of these substantive and procedural provisions are consistent with the measures being of the nature as described on the tin: ‘safeguard measures’.

The measures are to be protective – and what is to be protected is the operation of the protocol and the shared understandings on which the protocol rests.

This means any attempt to use the safeguard measures to, say, alter the operation of the protocol, or to disturb the shared understandings on which the protocol rests, is outside the purpose of the safeguard measures.

In simple terms: that is not what the safeguard measures are safeguarding.

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Of course, politicians being politicians, there will be a temptation to use the Article 16 safeguard measures for other purposes – as leverage in trade discussions, or as retaliatory weapons, or as an attempt to re-write or even discard the protocol.

But even if the intention is to misuse the safeguard measures, the measures are – at least in theory – subject always to the substantive requirements of Article 16 and the procedural requirements of Annex 7.

Of course: all legal instruments are only ever as powerful as the human will to enforce their terms.

For Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?the eternal question of who watches the watchmen – applies here, as elsewhere.

What – or who – shall safeguard the safeguards?

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The Queen’s Consent – a strange and obscure feature of the constitution of the United Kingdom – and why it should be abolished

8th February 2021

This post is about a thing of which you may not have heard.

The Queen’s Consent.

No, not that.

The Queen’s Consent is instead an odd and generally unknown feature of the constitution of the United Kingdom.

It is in the news today because of some investigative reporting by the Guardian newspaper.

The news report is here and their explainer about the Queen’s Consent is here.

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So what is the Queen’s Consent – and why, if at all, does it matter?

Let us start with what it is not.

The Queen’s Consent is not the ‘royal assent’ that is given to a bill passed by parliament that transforms it, by legal magic, into an act of parliament.

True, the royal assent is itself not widely understood.

Many think it is the queen herself that signs the legislation, but royal assent to legislation is done on the monarch’s behalf (and the last monarch to give royal assent personally was Victoria).

But Queen’s Consent is a different constitutional beast.

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Queen’s Consent is the right of the monarch (and the heir to the throne) to be consulted on – and thereby to veto – any legislation that affects the private interests of the crown.

Imagine if the constitution of the United States provided formally for the president of the day – Donald Trump or otherwise – to intervene in congress to stop or to amend proposed legislation that affected the financial interests of the president or the president’s family.

That is what the Queen’s Consent provides for in the United Kingdom.

It is a structural right to lobby beyond the dreams of any cynical Westminster ‘public affairs’ firm.

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There are a couple of things to note before we get onto just how strange this constitutional device is.

First, this is not about placing the crown beyond or above the law – it is instead (ahem) ‘upstream’ from the law being in place.

It is about being able to shape the law before it takes any effect.

Second, it is not about the public powers of the crown – the so-called ‘royal prerogative’ though the crown also has the right also to be consulted about legislation that affects those powers.

This is about the right to be consulted about proposed laws that affect the crown’s private interests rather than its public powers.

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And now we come to four strange things about the Queen’s Consent.

First – and notwithstanding today’s front page splash in the Guardian – a good deal about the Queen’s Consent is in the public domain, hiding in plain sight.

It is just that few people know about it or care.

In the cabinet office’s guide to legislation for civil servants it warrants an entire chapter.

There is also an entire 32-page pamphlet devoted to the topic for the benefit of those who draft legislation.

The detailed ‘Erskine May’ book of authority on parliamentary procedure also has a section on the subject.

(Look carefully at the wording of what Erskine May says here.)

And in 2014 there was even a parliamentary select committee report on the practice.

But unless you are a constitutional obsessive you would, however, not be aware of any of this.

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The second curious feature of the Queen’s Consent is perhaps the most extraordinary one.

The Queen’s Consent has no legal basis whatsoever.

There is no statute, nor even (it seems) any parliamentary resolution.

It is instead is something that is just, well, done.

If you scroll back up you will see that even Erskine May does not even offer any authority for the procedure.

And if you look at the practitioner’s legal encyclopaedia Halsbury’s Laws of England the authority that is given for the practice is Erskine May.

The 2014 select committee took evidence from specialists in parliamentary procedure and constitutional law experts – and the select committee could not identify any legal basis for the practice.

The only (supposed) authority is that it is ‘long-established’.

Given that the parliamentary bible Erskine May insists that the Queen’s Consent is ‘required‘ one would hope (and even expect) there to be some legal basis for the consent, but there is none.

To the extent that the Queen’s Consent has any formal basis at all, it is entirely based on parliamentary procedure.

And this means that it would be easy to abolish, for what is giveth by parliamentary procedure can be be taketh away by parliamentary procedure.

No law would need to be passed at all.

The queen would not need to be consulted, either by the Queen’s Consent or otherwise.

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The third oddity about the Queen’s Consent is similar to the second.

For just as there is no visible legal basis for this structural bias, there is also hardly any visible effect.

It is all done in secret.

And this is why today’s Guardian report has some significance.

It appears to be a documented example where the Queen’s Consent was used to actually shape legislation.

Yes, it is from nearly fifty years ago.

And yes, it is partly dependent on a 1975 speech from Geoffrey Howe in parliament, who delightfully savages us like a dead sheep all these years later.

But – given the secrecy that cloaks the use of the Queen’s Consent procedure, and the general restrictions on official records in the United Kingdom – that is the best evidence we are likely to readily get in practice.

Some will note the lack of evidence of this formal step having any effect and will contend from that lack of evidence that the formal step is merely a formality.

That there is nothing to look at here, and that there is nothing for us too worry our heads about.

But.

The evidence we do have indicates that the process is taken seriously and is intended to be practical.

Chapter 6 of the guide for those drafting legislation is insistent that notice be given to the court with sufficient time for it to have effect – and also that it should not be done prematurely.

None of this would be relevant, still less stipulated, if the stage was merely formal and ceremonial.

Those responsible for legislation are reminded again and again to make sure that the stage is treated so that it is efficacious for the crown.

Here it is worth noting that until fairly recently this guidance was hidden from public view using the excuse that it was covered by legal professional privilege – from the 2014 select committee report:

Steers on mere ceremonial steps are usually not anywhere close to being subject to legal professional privilege.

A further indication that the Queen’s Consent is a consequential stage rather than some ceremonial gimmick is the sheer detail of what has been and can be covered.

None of this would make sense if the Queen’s Consent was a mere formality.

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The fourth curious – and somewhat quaint and amusing – feature of the Queen’s Consent is how it make a private solicitors’ office a formal part of the constitution of the United Kingdom.

You would think this elevated role for a private individual this was the stuff of fiction – like George Smiley visiting Connie Sachs at her country cottage, or Sherlock Holmes visiting his brother at the Diogenes Club:

‘I did not know you quite so well in those days. One has to be discreet when one talks of high matters of state. You are right in thinking that he is under the British government. You would also be right in a sense if you said that occasionally he is the British government.’

But it is there in black and white.

For this formal stage of the Queen’s Consent a letter has to be sent to a private solicitor in Lincoln’s Inn Square:

The ‘language of the letters should be formal in nature’ – so presumably a bill could be frustrated if ‘Dear Sirs’ was followed by an incorrect ‘Yours sincerely’ – or even, gods forbid, there was not a ‘.’ after ‘Mr’.

It is all rather silly.

But what is not rather silly but rather serious is that that this is not to a lawyer in any public capacity in the royal household, and still less to the government’s own treasury solicitor, but to a private solicitor professionally charged with protecting and promoting private interests – and that the whole procedure is geared around the convenience of the private solicitor obtaining and then executing instructions from that solicitor’s private client.

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And this being England – and this is more an English trait rather than a British one – there is no express mention of ‘veto’ in any of the official documents.

The language used is in terms of a consent that is ‘required’ but the implications of the consent not given are left unspoken.

In practice, and given the lack of evidence of the consent being formally withheld, what this means is that the crown is given the right and opportunity to shape prospective legislation – or in the case today disclosed by the Guardian – to make alternative arrangements before the legislation passes.

The question is not about what happens if consent is not given, but what things need to change for the necessary consent to be given.

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There will be some who, even with all this information, will just shrug with a ‘so what?’.

There is no evidence – at least recent evidence – of the practice doing any harm.

But.

If the practice is, in fact, a mere formality then nothing will be lost with its abolition.

And if the practice does – as the procedure implies – have real effects, then it also should be abolished.

There is no good reason why the head of any state should have the privilege of the protection and promotion of their private interests by their private lawyer as a formal part of the law-making process. 

This would be wrong it had been for the benefit of President Trump’s family for bills before congress, and it is just as wrong here.

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